Supreme Court Same-Sex Fed Marriage Rights Ruling has Little Impact on Cecil County Govt.; Legally Wed Folks Now Get Benefits
A landmark Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday, finding that same-sex legally married couples must have equal rights to benefits under federal law, is expected to have little impact on Cecil County government employees, who already have spousal benefits, a county official said.
Donna Nichols, Cecil County’s Director of Human Resources, told Cecil Times that she had followed the breaking news of the Supreme Court decision on Wednesday and that the early indications were that little would change in county policy regarding employee benefits as a result of the ruling. For the past several years, all legally married employees—regardless of the gender of their spouses—have had access to health benefits, she said.
However, she said that other issues—such as requirements under the separate federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) might have to be re-evaluated and revised in light of the new high court decision.
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional because it violated basic rights and equal protections under the law, and had improperly written “inequality” into federal law. As a result, benefits and legal rights provided under federal law will now be equally applied to legally married same-sex couples. But the decision did not specifically address fundamental rights of such couples who live in states that do not recognize their marriages.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who introduced a marriage equality bill into the General Assembly and pushed for its successful passage, reacted to the DOMA decision by the Supreme Court, saying:
“Today, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional as applied to states that recognize equal marriage rights. This ruling is a powerful step forward for those who live in states like Maryland. But the Court’s decisions make clear that there is still more work to do as a nation to achieve greater respect for the equal rights and human dignity of all.”
The same-sex marriage legislation approved last year in Maryland was petitioned to a voter referendum, but state voters approved the measure by a substantial margin in November, 2012. As a result, since January 1 this year, same sex marriages have been legal in Maryland.
Earlier, a state appellate court ruling had indicated that Maryland must recognize legal marriages performed in other states that had already allowed same-sex marriages. And State Attorney General Doug Gansler issued an opinion in 2010 that the state court ruling meant that Maryland agencies must recognize out-of-state marriages even if this state had not yet legalized such marriages within Maryland borders.
[SEE Gansler’s legal opinion here: http://www.oag.state.md.us/Opinions/2010/95oag3.pdf
As a result of those findings, Cecil County government has provided employee health insurance benefits to same sex couples if they provided a legal marriage certificate, from a state where same-sex marriage was legal. The same requirement to show proof of a legal marriage has also been required of different-sex couples in order to obtain employee benefits coverage for a spouse, Nichols said.
Responding to the Supreme Court decision, Gansler—who is widely expected to run for Maryland governor in 2014—cited his past support for same-sex marriage equality and noted that he had filed a ‘friend of the court’ brief with the Supreme Court supporting the striking down of DOMA.
“Today, by declaring Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has moved our nation one step closer to fulfilling the Constitution’s promise of equal protection of the law,” Gansler said in a statement.
“When same-sex marriage was still illegal in Maryland, I worked to give same-sex married couples legally wed in other states the full measure of equality our legally married couples enjoyed. That push for equality led to calls for my impeachment, but I knew it was the right — and constitutional — thing to do,” Gansler added. He also pointed out that he was the first statewide elected official to testify in support of the Maryland same-sex marriage legislation in Annapolis.
For private business employers, there is no clear directive from the Supreme Court’s decision, which only applied to federal benefits. But as legal analysis continues, there may be some signals to local private business employers about future expectations for their employee benefits policies.